By Nima Maghame and Rebecca Bowe
On July 12th, 2007 two apache helicopters attacked the small suburb of Al-Amin, Iraq. More than two dozen people were killed, including two Reuters journalists, driver assistant Saeed Chmagh and war photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen.
And the entire incident was recorded on video -- from the helicopters.
Reuters demanded an investigation in the summer of 2007, and asked for copies of the video the choppers took. The government refused. But after three years, a copy of the video has finally been released -- through Wikileaks. The chilling footage shows the helicopters firing on seemingly unsuspecting Iraqi civilians -- and includes the helicopter crews’s comment, which are even more chilling.
It’s as if the gunners were playing a video game, as if they didn’t consider the people on the ground to be living human beings. “Oh, look at those dead bastards,” one crewman says. At another point, the gunners -- who aren’t allowed to fire at unarmed targets -- practically beg a wounded man to pick up a weapon so they can finish him off. And when the man gets into a van that arrives to help him, they ask for permission to open fire: “Come on, let us shoot!”
The U.S. Military released a memo explaining that the actions taken by the soldiers were in accordance with its own Rules of Engagement.
The 17-minute video was posted online at Wikileaks.org, an investigative Web site that publicizes sensitive documents and
information leaked by anonymous sources in order to expose corruption and wrongdoing. Wikileaks obtained the footage "from a number of military whistleblowers," according to a description accompanying the footage on the Web site CollateralMurder.com. Wikileaks editors had to decode the encrypted version of the leaked video in order to view its contents and air it.
In the video, when shooters inside the helicopter start to zero in on the pedestrians below, they can be heard identifying the objects they are carrying as an AK-47 and an RPG. But according to an Associated Press article quoting an unnamed U.S. military official, "a military investigation later concluded that what was thought to be an RPG was really a long-range photography lens; likewise, the camera looked like an AK-47."
Reuters stopped short --- way, way short -- of making a big issue of the killings. “The deaths of Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh three years ago were tragic and emblematic of the extreme dangers that exist in covering war zones,” said David Schlesinger, editor-in-chief of Reuters news We continue to work for journalist safety and call on all involved parties to recognise the important work that journalists do and the extreme danger that photographers and video journalists face in particular.”
David Finkle wrote about the incident in his 2009 book The Good Soldiers. Finkle, who was following military personnel in charge of training Iraqi national forces, had only been a few streets away when the attack took place. The author had also been friends with Noor-Eldeen and Chmang.
Finkle wrote that both Reuters staff were working independently -- that is, they weren’t officially embedded with the U.S. forces -- and he claims that's is why the military didn’t know of their existence. “There had been reports of sniper rifle, rooftop chases, and rocket-propelled grenades being fired at Bravo Company, and as the fighting continued, it attracted the attention of Namir Noor-Eldeen, a 22-year-old photographer for Reuters news agency who lived in Baghdad, and Saeed Chmangh, 40, his driver and assistant,” wrote Finkle, who was close to where the Apaches attacked but not an eyewitness.
“There was a one-second pause and then came the fourth burst. In the cloud, NE could be seen trying to stand, and then he simply seemed to explode,” wrote Finkle. Chmang tried to stand up and run away before falling down again. The video's audio picked up two of the drivers urging Chmang to arm himself so they can kill him.
“Come on, buddy” says one driver. “All you gotta do is pick up a weapon,” says the other driver.
A Kia passenger van stopped by Chmang and attempted to rescue him. The helicopters radioed for permission to fire on the van and received confirmation just as Chmang was being helped into the van. The soldiers blasted the van just as it started to roll away.
Two children were wounded in the attack as well, and were evacuated by US. Military personnel.